Few things have been so distorted by popular culture quite like The Exorcist. The ooze-like vomit and crucifix masturbation that the film is famous for are but details meant to enhance the grand and traumatizing struggle of good versus evil personified by each character. Originally, a particularly horrific scene involved the possessed Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) crab-walking down a flight of stairs, coming to a halt only to howl and vomit blood.
This scene was cut from the 1973 release because director William Friedkin felt the effect was “too much” and the wires used to harness the contortionist stunt-double were too obvious. In the 2000 extended release, the wires were digitally removed and the importance of the effect was finally realized. Right before Regan descends the stairs, her mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is told that her director and close friend Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) was found dead at the bottom of the steps outside her house with a broken neck. With doctors unable to help her daughter and her career and sanity threatened, this is the precise moment that her life unravels completely. The effects of a young girl doing these terrifying things isn’t to incite a simple shock, they are crucial moments in which the other pivotal characters are broken down and forced to question their very existence. What is overlooked by almost everything that has ever mentioned the film is that Regan’s character is not only a vessel for evil but is a tool used to force everyone in contact with her to confront the evil they feel inside themselves; whether it’s her own mother questioning what she has done to allow this to happen to her daughter despite the ‘ideal’ life she has provided or the rouge priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who questions his own faith and blames himself for his own mother’s neglected condition and even her eventual death. Every character has something for the true evil inside of Regan to exploit.
About two thirds of the way through the film, we see Chris and Father Karras discussing Regan’s condition in the family’s basement after Father Karras first agrees to examine her after a jarring meeting in which the clearly broken and disheveled Chris practically begs the Father for his assistance as her last resort. With his mother dead and his faith completely shaken, Father Karras can’t come to terms with the fact that he could be dealing with a true demonic possession, despite the demon’s mention of his freshly deceased mother being “in here with us” and constantly changing voices. Conversely, Chris finds herself turning away from her atheistic tendencies after science and modern medicine fail to find the cause of her daughter’s ‘illness’, whether it is psychological, physical or otherwise. This precise convergence of ideals happens in a moment where the lighting of the room casts shadows on the Father’s face, creating a skeletal form with dramatically hollow eyes and gaunt cheekbones a little bit like the not-so-subliminal demonic faces spliced into the film throughout. Spoilers and puns aside, when foreshadowing is that powerful, it’s more haunting than any demonic child turning it’s head all the way around.
After Father Karras’ second interview with Regan, he analyzes the tape and his colleague notices that during a frantic episode she was speaking english, only in reverse. Upon reversing the tape, Karras hears several disjointed exclamations including the demon clearly yelling, “MERRIN” in anguish. The rivalry between an ancient demon and Father Merrin finally pieces itself together after an hour and a half of wondering why the opening scene featured a mysteriously afflicted priest/archaeologist studying ancient ruins in Northern Iraq. Unlike the other characters, Father Merrin’s struggle is with the notion of Evil in the world, the demon itself and it’s appearances and possessions throughout Merrin’s life as a priest/exorcist/archaeologist. It is apt then that when he first arrives at the house in the iconic street lamp scene that the very shot is inspired by René Magritte’s surreal Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières). It’s vivid, idyllic sky juxtaposed with the melancholic, darkened scene capture the unnerving paradoxes of the film where Good and Evil exist simultaneously inside one body. Obviously a fitting inspiration for the arrival of a talented exorcist, the actual aesthetic of the scene itself does anything but reassure the viewer that Good will triumph over Evil in the end.
Being touted simply as one of the greatest horror films does a disservice the depth and intelligence this film has to offer. The characters and their immense struggles with faith are only mirroring the general worldview of what faith means when human knowledge has no answers.